NEW YORK, Dec 8 (Reuters) - A panel convened to investigate lane closings at the George Washington Bridge said on Monday it found no evidence that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was involved in "Bridgegate" but said its findings were inconclusive because key witnesses did not testify.
The scandal dealt a political setback to Christie, a Republican thought to be weighing a bid for the White House in 2016, over whether he knew about the four days of access lane closings in September 2013 that caused massive snarls delaying school buses, ambulances and commuters on the New Jersey-Manhattan crossing.
Christie has adamantly denied knowing about the incident in Fort Lee, New Jersey at the time or being involved.
A legislative panel formed to investigate found Bridget Kelly, a top Christie aide, ordered the closings in concert with David Wildstein, then an executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees bridge operations.
Even if Kelly and Wildstein acted alone, its interim report said they did so "with perceived impunity and in an environment ... in which they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustration."
Christie fired Kelly in January and Wildstein resigned.
Evidence showed the closings were partly intended as punishment for the mayor of Fort Lee, but the panel said it could not determine if they were retribution for his failure to endorse Christie's re-election bid or another reason.
It said its probe "leaves open the question of when the Governor first learned of the closures and what he was told."
"At present, there is no conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Chris Christie was or was not aware of the lane closures either in advance of their implementation or contemporaneously as they were occurring," it said. "Nor is there conclusive evidence as to whether Governor Christie did or did not have involvement in implementing or directing the lane closures."
It said there was evidence the governor was told while the closings were in progress but said that evidence came from Wildstein, who has refused to answer its questions and is seeking immunity.
"Many critical questions" remain unanswered because several key witnesses declined to cooperate or were unavailable to testify, it said.
A law firm hired by Christie has exonerated him and blamed former members of his inner circle. A criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey continues. (Editing by Eric Walsh)